The big question: how can companies build a greener workplace?

The behaviour of people working inside office buildings will have far more influence on creating a sustainable culture than smart technical systems. So how can we encourage changes in behaviour? One way is to identify and reinforce emerging cultures.

Everyone knows that the way we work is having a detrimental effect on our environment. Office buildings waste energy and resources by leaving lights on, ICT and air-conditioning systems running, and desks empty. Commuting and business travel also have a significant impact on attempts to reduce carbon emissions.

With customers now demanding greater sustainability and governments legislating for it, business organisations are looking for ways to develop a more sustainable culture, but many are struggling to define the right approach.

Within organisations, individual employees too are uncertain as to how they can make a difference. Many feel that the greener things they can do, such as not printing or recycling, are insignificant without a coherent company strategy for sustainability in place. On the ground, workplace and facilities managers are also unsure what more to ask of people without compromising their working practices.

 The way we work is having a detrimental effect on our environment

Looking more closely at the problem of unsustainable workplaces, one can see that much of the focus on achieving greener offices has been at the level of the technical building system. There has been far less emphasis on changing the behaviour of the people working inside office buildings and on supporting more sustainable work-styles.

A question of behaviour

Engineering and architectural solutions have been devised to create more energy-efficient buildings – from smart systems to control heating and cooling to sensor lighting, photovoltaic panels and triple glazing. But these can be tick-boxing exercises that detract from the real issue of how a building is used by people over time.

Energy-saving devices are only sustainable if they are actually used, and even the cleverest technical solutions often still require a change in behaviour. Also, while smart technical systems go some way to reducing the environmental impact of a building, they also serve to support the belief that the route to a greener work future lies only in the creation of innovative new office buildings.

Surveys have shown that the majority of employees aspire to work for an organisation that is sustainable, but if organisations are to dedicate time and investment to enable these aspirations they need to do so effectively. This means considering both technical solutions and behaviour change. While technical solutions require financial investment, behaviour change requires people to do things differently. There is no denying this is difficult.

This essay describes a design research project undertaken by the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art, which aimed to understand how to support facility managers (and others tasked with environmental sustainability in the workplace) to engage employees in behaviour change and create more environmentally sustainable workplaces and work styles.

Research process

Research took place in three case study organisations in the UK and Netherlands. These companies, invited to participate, each represented a different industry sector (consumer goods, financial services and real estate). Participants were selected from three different age brackets – under 30, between 30 and 50, and over 50 – and from different departments and roles within each organisation. The research team employed ethnographic and user-centred design methodologies focused on understanding user capabilities, wants and needs, and on producing design concepts in response – an iterative process involving users throughout to imagine, discuss and evaluate the concepts. In all, a total of 54 people participated in the study.

A model of four green cultures

The research found that there are two main things that employees think about in terms of their attitude towards environmental sustainability – whether it holds a cost for the organisation and whether it holds a cost to the employee. For the company, such costs include any financial cost, e.g. installing sensor lighting, or costs in terms of the company’s ability to compete with less sustainable companies, for example, choosing to hold a video-conference call rather than flying. As one interview participant put it: ‘Sustainability from a company perspective has to be something that gives you a competitive edge, not takes it away’.

‘Sustainability from a company perspective has to be something that gives you a competitive edge not takes it away’

For the employee, costs include inconveniences to their current lifestyle, money, time, changes to the workplace standards or ways of working, effects on status and curtailment of individual choice. While some people are willing to accept costs, others don’t believe that sustainability in the workplace should be their responsibility.

The research team used this view of sustainability as a cost to formulate a model of four different cultures based upon people’s perception of the cost of sustainability to both company and employees. These four cultures represent the majority opinion within a company, the types of sustainable policies they might consider, and the conditions under which they might implement them. The cultures also represent an individual’s viewpoint within a company.

These cultures emerge from the predominant culture of an organisation but are also influenced by individuals’ own beliefs built up through their life outside of work.


Pragmatists believe sustainability should not pose a cost to the employee or company. Their view is that if an initiative is not beneficial to everyone then it cannot be considered and is unlikely to succeed if put in place. Therefore they require a strong business case. In a Pragmatist company culture sustainability policies focus on quick wins such as energy saving measures that do not need input from employees or substantial investment from the company.

Pragmatists are motivated by financial rewards, social norms and performance targets set by the company. They will want to know how much an initiative will cost, and whether it will save themselves or their company money. They are likely to say, ‘that’s just how we do things here’, and are unlikely to actively look to make changes. They will respond well to communications that highlight the business case for a sustainable initiative and will be more receptive to messages that emphasise sustainability as the sensible option, rather than the morally right thing to do.

Pragmatist: ‘that’s just the way we do things here’


Libertarians believe sustainability is the responsibility of the company and should not require sacrifices from staff. Libertarians assert their right to have a choice in how they work. While they may recognise that sustainability is an issue which the company needs to address, they believe this should be tackled by sidestepping policies that would affect employees through company investment in more sustainable infrastructure, thus avoiding policies that would adversely effect employees.

Libertarians are motivated by financial rewards, gaining privileges and status – and being seen to be successful. They expect to have a certain level of autonomy over their work lives, and desire to direct their own lives and pursue their own ideas. They expect to be rewarded for their efforts and respond well to bonuses. They are likely to judge any change they are asked to make in terms of ‘what’s in it for me?’

They will like to hear that their company is leading on sustainability, breaking new ground in their particular market and implementing successful business-led initiatives. They will respond well to the message that being a ‘good’ business in environmental terms is also good in financial terms too.

Libertarian: ‘what’s in it for me?’


Housekeepers believe that responsibility for sustainability lies with employees. A Housekeeper attitude is one of cutting down and making do, typifying the ‘waste not, want not’ mantra. In a Housekeeper company sustainability policies focus on employee behaviour change, encouraging employees to do something new or different, such as asking people to turn out the lights or recycle more.

Housekeepers want to know that they are making a positive difference to the world around them. They are motivated by contributing to shared goals and by being part of a community. They like messages about ‘doing your bit’ and ‘small actions that all add up’. Being told that their actions will make a difference is enough of a reason for them to take part in an initiative.

Housekeeper: ‘waste not, want not’


Campaigners believe that sustainability is a responsibility that everyone (company and employees) must take seriously and therefore should be embedded in everyone’s roles and integrated within the company strategy. They believe costs must be accepted by both and demand more investment by the company and more involvement and action from fellow employees. In a Campaigner company, policies combine the approaches of the Libertarian and the Housekeeper to focus on matched effort, encouraging employees to work with the company to create change.

Campaigners are motivated by personal values and a genuine concern for environmental issues. They care about making a real difference to big problems such as climate change. They will want to know that their company is taking sustainability seriously and taking radical action. They will be critical if they feel their company’s intentions are insincere or their policies don’t deliver real environmental benefits.

How these cultures co-exist

An organisation may have one predominant culture but contain employees of other cultures too. Tensions often arise between employees whose views differ from the predominant culture, resulting in conflict, misunderstanding and resentment; for example, a Housekeeper policy of car-pooling will not be popular with a group of Libertarians.

But each culture has benefits. While a Campaigner initiative will ultimately have more benefit to the environment in the long term, a Pragmatist initiative, because it is easier to put in place, may lead to a quicker, wider uptake. Sustainability requires shifts in behaviours on all fronts, from small, seemingly unimportant actions to grand strategies. Hence a positive organisation behavior approach is advocated whereby all of these cultures are seen as having a valid and positive contribution to make.

A benchmarking and strategy tool

A second round of workshops as part of the research programme showed that people were able to recognise themselves, their organisation’s culture and that of individual colleagues within the model. Others were able to identify their company initiatives as belonging to one or another culture. The workshops demonstated that organisations want to be seen as Campaigners and that individuals want to work for them. However discussions highlighted discrepancies between a company’s vision and action on the ground.

It became clear that both organisations and individuals found the model useful as a tool to benchmark their progress, helping them to identify their current and desired culture. The model was also recognised by real estate professionals as a strategy tool to help companies understand their organisation’s sustainability culture and develop a plan of action.

Engagement toolkit

As a result, the research was compiled into a toolkit aimed at workplace managers, which uses the model as the basis to provide information about how best to communicate with employees about environmental sustainability in the workplace and how to motivate behaviour change. An overview of the toolkit content is outlined here:

1. Step-by-step process

The toolkit is a step-by-step guide to the process of developing an employee engagement strategy. It starts with tools to help evaluate employees’ attitudes and assess a company’s current approach to employee engagement. It provides a methodology for creating a sustainability roadmap and details the process of creating a communications strategy and understanding what rewards and benefits to use. It explains how to roll out different initiatives and understand what communication channels to use. Lastly it explains the importance for an organisation to continually re-evaluate its strategy and give feedback.

2. Workshop templates

Workshop templates form a central part of the toolkit. These focus on identifying the different cultures that exist within an organization, accessing an organisation’s current sustainability policies and creating a roadmap for future initiatives. Workshops held during the research were often the first opportunity for employees from different departments and levels of an organisation to meet and discuss sustainability issues, and they proved to be a valuable activity.

3. Creating a roadmap

The toolkit contains a methodology to help organisations plan a spread of sustainability initiatives that will appeal to each culture. The toolkit demonstrates how by communicating these as a connected programme of activities will help to ensure behaviour change initiatives, often appearing trivial to employees, are understood as part of a larger strategy.

4. Tailoring communications

Recommendations explain how to engage different kinds of audiences with different types of initiatives, for example, how to make Pragmatists comfortable in a Campaigner company culture, or how to motivate Libertarians in behaviour change initiatives.


5. Exemplar initiatives

The toolkit provides many exemplar initiatives to demonstrate how its recommendations might be interpreted within different cultural contexts. These aim to provide FM and workplace managers with a range of ideas and approaches to initiatives under the themes of energy saving, transport and waste reduction.

Implications of the toolkit

The practical nature of the workshops, methodologies, recommendations and exemplar initiatives contained within the toolkit will aid workplace managers to engage with employees and co-create more environmentally sustainable work practices. However behaviour change is just one part of the journey towards achieving this complex goal and will need to be run in tandem with other approaches such as the development of sustainable infrastructures and the smart utilisation of sustainable energy and resources.

Employee behaviour change needs to be considered as part of an organisation’s efforts to create more sustainable business practices. This is a complex issue. Employees and organisations hold different attitudes and beliefs with regards to sustainability. Sometimes these are coherent but often they are conflicting.

This research examined these attitudes using a user-centred design research methodology. The resulting model of four different sustainability cultures – Pragmatist, Libertarian, Housekeeper and Campaigner, based upon people’s perception of the cost of sustainability to both company and employees – can be used to provide insight into the predominant sustainability culture of an organisation as well as the attitudes of individual employees.

The toolkit that has been developed from the model contains practical tools such as workshops templates, communication recommendations and exemplar initiatives within a step-by-step process. This can help organisations build employee engagement in sustainability that is relevant and meaningful to their building users and therefore ultimately more successful.

This essay has been adapted from the academic paper, Sustainable Cultures: Engaging employees in creating more sustainable workplaces and workstyles, written by Catherine Greene, Lottie Crumbleholme and Jeremy Myerson, and published in Facilities by Emerald (Vol. 32 No. 7/8, 2014). The authors acknowledge the support of Johnson Controls and the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art in undertaking the research.

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